Ars Praedicandi: 17th Sunday in O.T. (B), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Many traditions have their own version
of the stone soup parable.
The one I know is about a homeless family
that had only one possession, a cooking pot.
When they arrived in a new village
they were unsuccessful in attempts to beg food from the locals.

So they took their pot to the river, filled it with water,
dropped a large stone in it
and placed it over a fire.

When a villager asked what they were doing
the father explained they were making a family delicacy:
stone soup.
All it needed was a bit of garnish.

One villager added a few vegetables to the soup and
another added some strips of dried meat.
As more villagers were engaged and more ingredients contributed,
the stone soup actually became a tantalizing meal.

The story illustrates that out of lack and deprivation
there can arise great nourishment,
even the very lavishness of God.

This is a message we get today
not only in the gospel, but in the lectionary design
in which the Gospel of John
helps the Gospel of Mark make stone soup.

Mark is the shortest gospel,
not able to stretch out over an entire liturgical year
like Matthew and Luke.

Out of this deficit of brevity
we are served up quite a feast thanks to John
not just this week, but for five weeks in a row.

The liturgical year treats John’s gospel in a special way:
it does not have his own year as do the other gospels,
but is read in each year on central feasts
like Christmas and Holy Thursday.

John is evoked on these festal days
because of its symbolic richness
and theological insight.
This is nowhere as true as in John 6.

There are many reasons why John 6 is so important.
Its sacramental value is revealed when realizing that
while all of the other gospels have a last supper story
with Jesus saying some version of
“this is my body – cup my blood,”
John’s last supper story – the longest in the gospels –
nowhere has Jesus speaking those sacred words.

Instead, Jesus acts out what it means to be his body
through that memorable foot-washing ritual only found in John.

If we want an explicit Johannine expose on bread, flesh and life,
we have to exit the Last supper context
and journey back into this 6th chapter.

Like his last supper account,
John’s theologizing does not start with a sermon but with action.
Here it is not foot washing, but feeding.
Not with words about the significance of Eucharist,
but actions that exemplify what it means to be Eucharist

It is particularly the details – the beginning and ending of this story
the gift of a child and the promise of leftovers –
that are notably rich.

First is the child:
revealed as an unexpected source of nourishment
rather than some prophet, disciple, or even Jesus himself.

As the unexpected messenger,
the boy’s own version of stone soup
nourishes the bodies of thousands
and the souls of untold millions over the centuries.

This unexpected revelation confirms
that God’s spirit operates beyond our imaginations;
that care and nourishment can arrive
even through the most unlikely of people.

A young married woman from Seattle, caring for her two children
while husband was away on a business trip
received a phone call from the police in Chicago
that her husband had died of a heart attack. [1]

She wrote down the address of the hospital
where his body was being held, on a slip of paper and
drowning in grief, packed her overnight bag
and traveled to Chicago.

At the airport, she handed the slip of paper to a cabbie
who drove her to the hospital.

The hospital staff was waiting for her
took her to the morgue
where she identified her husband.

As she was about to dissolve in grief
she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder
and a handful of Kleenex from behind.

When she turned to learn the source of this care
she was touched to see that it was the cabbie
who had parked his car
and followed her into the hospital:
an unforeseen angel of care.

Humanity, care, even ministry from the unexpected
is a gospel invitation to stay alert
and be on the lookout for God’s spirit
disguised as the other, the child, the cabbie.

But it is also a gospel invitation to be
the unexpected source of ministry, of care, of Eucharist.

Now you might be saying to yourself
‘I would love to help out … but I’m not the cabbie type
who will park the car and follow you into the hospital.
Life is too complicated, resources are low
I can’t even always afford the bread and fish.’

But here is where we might get a little inspiration
from another detail in John’s gospel:
that after everyone had eaten their fill
and they gathered up the fragments that filled
twelve baskets of leftovers.

Leftovers usually don’t inspire much,
except for gastronomic disappointment
and sometimes the snide remark …

I have a great friend, a Presbyterian minister,
whose wife is a wonder at conserving food
and rarely throws anything away.

At the beginning of one meal of reimagined leftovers,
she said to her husband “Dear, you forgot the blessing.”
He looked at her and said, “Sweetheart, if you can show me
one item on this plate
that hasn’t been blessed at least twice, I’ll try.
But not sure prayer will help.”
Wonder where he slept that night!

Yet, the evangelist is telling us to
minister out of our leftovers.
our fragmented time, money, clothes, and life.

Artist and poet Jan Richardson understands
and offers this blessing over fragments:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

It is not news to anyone with a social conscience
that our urban centers are punctuated with food deserts,
large segments of our population living over a mile away
from large grocery stores or supermarkets,
and are instead served by smaller businesses that sell largely
dried, processed, and packaged products
with low nutritional content.
This is such a prevalent issue in our own state
that there is actually a law requiring the government
to track food deserts
so that they can adequately be addressed.

In this fragmented society and country,
there are also food deserts of a spiritual kind
in which people’s human hungers for kindness and care,
for generosity, and even God
are not being met.
There is also a law that addresses this issue as well:
it is called the Great Commandment, which in part reads
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

In his magical story, the Mother of Soda Bread,
Jack Shea narrates the quest of one daughter:

To learn how her mother makes the world’s best soda bread, before her mother declines and her secret recipe disappears.  So she asked “Ma, mind if I watch and take a few notes?” Her mother didn’t mind

The next afternoon Ma gathered on the countertop all the ingredients necessary for her famous soda bread — flour, sugar, raisins, butter and a host of ancient spice bottles hidden in the back of the cabinet. Then with a deep intake of breath like a conductor the second before a symphony, she began.

Sarah took copious notes. Each pinch and dab and sprinkle were scribbled on her yellow pad. Later on, looking over her jottings, she was puzzled by the entry HDE. Then she remembered. That was shorthand for “hit dough with elbow.” Abbreviations were needed. when Sarah’s mother began to make the bread, she seemed to go into a trance. She moved gracefully, her hands swift and precise as a concert pianist’s.

The next day Sarah taped her notes to the cabinet door and began meticulously to follow the instructions. When she came to the part about elbowing the dough, she looked around to make sure she was alone. She felt a little silly, but then delivered the dough a mighty blow. No pro basketball player ever threw a better elbow.

That night at dinner she presented her masterpiece to family with all the anxiety of a bride’s first meal. Her family praised the soda bread extravagantly but also unanimously agreed that it was not as good as grandma’s.

That made Sarah more determined than ever, and sent her back for a second note-taking session.

The next afternoon her mother began her ritual of baking. Everything was as Sarah had marked it down. She could not see where she had gone wrong. “Ma, I did everything just as you did, but it didn’t turn out the same.”

You forgot the yeast,” her mother said. “You don’t use yeast in soda bread,” said Sarah.  “You use yeast in everything,” instructed her mother.  “I didn’t see you use it.”  “When I was kneading the dough, I saw all the faces of all the people who would eat it. The yeast entered the dough and made it bread.”

“What are you?” Sarah asked, laughing, “some kind of bread mystic?”  Her mother smiled, but she did not deny it. [2]

Bread mystics, fragment prophets, messengers of divine nourishment
commissioned to vanquish the food deserts
of body and spirit,
serving the multitudes from our poverty, so becoming eucharist.
This is our hope … our life … our mission
so we pray that we might become what we eat
through Christ our Lord. Amen.


[1] I heard this story first narrated by Prof. Andrew Root at a conference in South Africa in 2015.

[2] From John Shea, The Spirit Master (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1987).

 

3 comments

  1. In John 6, the miraculous Sign by Jesus with the gifts of the child is so un-worldly, so supernatural, as to cause the crowd to carry him off to try to make him king.

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